James Cameron's greedily expensive and minimally expansive Avatar is filled with Big Ideas that are tissue-paper thin. Set on another planet some years in the future, the movie delivers a thundering indictment of colonialism (of people), exploitation (of natural resources) and militarism that is old news, frankly, to anyone who's seen a Western from Hollywood's heyday. Much more interesting are the questions that Avatar unwittingly and unintentionally provokes about mainstream movies.
Avatar, in part, is a pretty transparent critique of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Thanks to its armada of truly impressive special effects and a tidal wave of publicity -- but especially because it peddles alternative-universe fantasy rather than gritty reality -- more people will buy tickets to Avatar than will have seen all the other Iraq- and Afghanistan-related dramas combined, from Jarhead to Battle For Haditha to this year's The Hurt Locker, The Messenger and Brothers.
American audiences have repeatedly demonstrated their unwillingness to confront the war in theaters (and everywhere else, for that matter). Should we applaud the distancing effect of 3-D, computer-generated characters, creatures and landscapes that allows or perhaps invites moviegoers to face military scenarios? Or should we be concerned that audiences might confuse video-game visuals for the reality of boots on the ground and bombs in any bag?
Ultimately, Avatar isn't a true science-fiction film -- one that brings some imagination to bear about future societies and civilization, utopias or dystopias -- but a metaphor for a current situation. Setting a metaphor in space, even at a cost of $300 million, isn't vision; it's a copout.
Here's another contradiction. Avatar spends most of its time siding with the scientists and condemning the Army brass (but not the soldiers), then rivets us with a half-hour battle of full-metal mayhem. A whole lot of (virtual) destruction of nature takes place, and we do feel the pain. It's one way of saying, "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone," although I don't see Joni Mitchell going out with Cameron for veggie stir-fry.
There's also the thorny question of who is allowed, and under what circumstances, to appropriate the history and suffering and wisdom of Native Americans and Africans for ersatz profundity. To his credit, Cameron does avoid heinous condescension and outright ludicrousness, although he does come close to a few Jar-Jar Binks moments.
Mostly, though, I wonder if a movie that costs a fortune to make, and is bankrolled and distributed by a multinational corporation for the sole purpose of generating revenue, can make any pretense of rattling the status quo. Avatar is an entertaining muddle that poses absolutely no threat.
Avatar opens Friday, December 18, 2009.